Slay the Oxbridge myths (1 of 2)

January 19, 2012

The recent (and recurring) debate regarding the state-independent divide in Oxbridge admissions ("Super-selection creates a monoculture that does not benefit society", 15 December, and the subsequent letters in response) reminded me yet again of a crucial point that is seldom acknowledged: to be accepted by the ancient universities, first you have to apply to them.

It is therefore pointless to compare the ratio of those accepted (for example, 55 per cent state and 45 per cent independent, according to the University of Oxford's 2010-11 admissions) with the oft-quoted ratio of all pupils in secondary education across the UK (93 per cent state, 7 per cent independent). Instead, we must compare the ratio of those accepted with those who actually applied in the first place (63 per cent state, 37 per cent independent at Oxford in 2010-11): in this light, the apparent discrepancy looks far less significant.

Further evidence is available that gives possible reasons as to why this small discrepancy remains: state-educated pupils tend to apply for high-demand courses (eg, economics and management, medicine and mathematics) with correspondingly low acceptance rates.

At the same time, independently educated pupils are more likely to opt for low-demand courses (eg, Classics, chemistry and engineering) with high acceptance rates.

Obtaining this information could hardly have been easier and took a matter of minutes - I simply visited Oxford's website and searched for "admissions statistics". We can only speculate why these vital figures are not quoted more often. Could it be that they are deliberately omitted by those hell-bent on propagating the myth of Oxbridge's elitist and exclusive practices?

If so, sadly it seems to be working: those involved in widening participation will often encounter fierce resistance from state-educated pupils who are convinced that Oxbridge is "full of toffs".

We will slay this self-propagating myth only by defeating the reluctance among state-educated pupils to apply to Oxbridge so that the imbalance in applications (and therefore admissions) is addressed.

We must start by being honest and presenting the full facts so that all pupils, regardless of background, who have the ability to enter Oxbridge can be confident at least that their application will be judged on merit, not money.

Phil Tresadern, Salford

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